music, technology & life in pasadena, california

Steve Wynn's Spam Filter

This week it was announced that Steve Wynn, owner of the new Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas, has contracted to present the Tony Award-winning musical, Monty Python’s Spamalot, for the next 7 to 10 years. He’s planning to build a theatre at the casino specifically to house the production. The Broadway show, Avenue Q, is currently showing at the Wynn along with a Cirque du Soleil clone called Le Reve. And Wynn said this week that he isn’t done yet…

Let’s take a closer look at what this means for theatre fans and theatre workers.

For starters, the show will be cut to 90 minutes without an intermission as opposed to its original Broadway running time of 2 hours-plus with an intermission. So this means that the Vegas theatergoers will see an abridged version, not the original as seen on Broadway. Spam-a-Lite with fewer calories.

Secondly, the contract does not allow for a touring company in California, Arizona or Nevada. Steve Wynn effectively is censoring the producers of Spamalot by precluding them presenting their show within a roughly 250 to 350-mile radius from Las Vegas. The ultimate spam filter. Why has he done this?

“Do not play” clauses are common tour contract items but a 350 mile radius is ridiculous and in a way intimates that Wynn doesn’t feel that Vegas (and his resort in particular) is enough of a draw without acting as a censor for the touring theatre industry. Touring shows play all the time in Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington DC and other nearby eastern cities, concurrently with their respective original NYC productions and Broadway doesn’t prevent shows from reaching those towns. So why have the producers agreed to this? Wynn must’ve paid a huge sum for them to agree to this. But it’s not all his fault; the Pythons are thumbing their noses at their own fans as well.

Wynn said that Spamalot will now be closer for left coasters than having to travel all the way to NYC…sure, but how about if it was right in your own city? That’s a lot closer, don’t you think, Steve? These shows all regularly travel to Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego…and he’s locking them out.

So now, if you want to see the show, you’ll have to pay for travel, hotel and meals before you even get the chance to fork over $100 or more for each ticket. By upping the ante with the above items it’s quite possible that this will lock out many of the biggest fans the theatre has, namely actors, students and elderly patrons. And what about folks who can only afford to shell out $25 to $35 for the last few rows in the nosebleed section? They’ll have to kiss Spamalot goodbye and who knows how many other Tony winners in the future if this trend continues.

Los Angeles, although a big entertainment city, is a small live theatre town. It has only two major theatres that regularly present large first-run Broadway productions. There aren’t many shows that have the potential to do long-term business here. In the past few years, only The Lion King and The Producers have run longer than a few months. (The Lion King ran for over 2 years and The Producers for about 8 months.) Spamalot is a big show with the possibility of running at least a year if it were booked here. The future loss of work for theatre employees, actors, crew members and musicians is really a shame. But the fans are the ones who’ll lose out…and they can thank Steve Wynn (and the Pythons) for that.

July 29, 2005 | Link to this entry

The Movie Music of Woody Allen

Two nights ago, I played a concert at the Hollywood Bowl featuring music from the soundtracks of Woody Allen’s films. Woody’s long-time music man, Dick Hyman, was on hand to conduct and play piano, and he brought along guitarist Howard Alden, the fantastic musician behind the Django Reinhardt-style guitar in the movie, Sweet and Lowdown, starring Sean Penn*. Sweet and Lowdown is one of my favorites especially since the main character is a jazz guitarist.

There was a lot of music played at the concert, actually 50 separate pieces! It was rehearsed in a total of 5 hours of which the second day’s rehearsals were at the Bowl in 100-degree temperatures. A group of freelance players, the Hollywood Jazz Orchestra, was assembled for the occasion and sounded great despite the heat.

Since Howard was the main guitarist for the show, I was there mainly as the rhythm guitarist for the Sweet and Lowdown portion. It was such a blast to play this style with a small group onstage at the Bowl. Dick Hyman played piano for most of this part, taking over for our exceptional local pianist, Brian Pezzone, who played when Dick was conducting. It was fun to see the look on Dick’s face as he was playing, enjoying every minute. Trey Henry on bass and Dick’s pal, Ted Sommers on drums, along with the two guitars rounded out the Django-style quintet.

What a fun way to spend a hot summer evening…

*When I originally saw Sweet and Lowdown I was impressed by how exceptionally well Sean Penn’s fingers moved in synch to his onscreen guitar solos. It turns out that Howard was also Sean’s guitar coach for the movie. He told me that Sean prepared so hard for his role in the film that in a relatively short amount of time he was actually able to play the first chorus of many of the solos pretty well, although it’s Howard’s playing that we hear in the movie. That’s really quite an accomplishment and I have a new respect for actors like Sean Penn who prepare so meticulously when approaching their roles.

July 23, 2005 | Link to this entry

Gehry & Grand Avenue Redux

At the end of my last post, I complained that the leaders of the Grand Avenue Project in downtown Los Angeles should be listening to and involving Frank Gehry in their development of the Bunker Hill district.

Today the LA Times noted that Gehry has indeed been chosen to design a 40- to 50-story skyscraper at the corner of Grand and 2nd Avenue, across the street from his Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Gehry will also have design input for parts of the retail and commercial area surrounding the concert hall. I hope he’s given a free reign and that the developer, Related Cos., doesn’t try to stifle the creativity that the area really needs in order to revitalize downtown and realize the vision that Gehry has had for the street for many years.

There is a tentative contract to make Gehry the lead architect for the first phase of construction. That would be a good thing. Rarely do we see a cohesive project when too many “cooks” are in the mix. Leave Frank Gehry alone in his adopted hometown to create his magic and leave his mark for generations to come.

July 14, 2005 | Link to this entry

Yo Frank! Get Outta My Neighborhood!

People who know me aren’t surprised that I’d be interested in architect Frank Gehry’s latest urban project, just unveiled a few days ago in Brooklyn. Having documented the construction of Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles and actually getting a chance to talk with the architect himself was a real treat and a fun long-term personal project.

Frank Gehry's Brooklyn The proposed plan includes a new 19,000-seat arena for the Brooklyn Nets basketball team surrounded by a 21-acre parcel consisting of 17 buildings, many of them huge high-rise towers of up to 60 stories. 6,000 housing units are also incorporated into the plan. This project is a huge undertaking for the 76-year-old Gehry and probably the largest of his career.

From the photos I’ve seen, the Gehry touch is evident but without knowing the area, I can’t begin to make any judgement about the implications for the site. On a 2003 trip to Brooklyn with the LA Philharmonic to premiere John Adams’ El Nino, I didn’t have time to get a feel for the neighborhood, which borders the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

However, there’s a huge outcry over the project and the criticism is mounting after this week’s announcement. Whenever gentrification occurs there’s always protest. The displacement of families, businesses and neighborhood “character” is always a cause for concern, and last week’s Supreme Court ruling regarding “eminent domain” urgently brings these issues front and center. Even before the Court’s ruling, this January 2004 article from the NY Times was already raising concerns. I’ll be following this story as it unfolds precisely because it pushes all the hot buttons concerning many cities today.

Adaptive reuse/revitalization and historical preservation projects always confront the “big picture” moral issues, weighing the advantages and the disadvantages. Here in Pasadena, the revitalization of the city center, Old Town Pasadena, has breathed new life into the core of the city. Historic buildings, rich with the architecture of an earlier time, have been transformed into shops, restaurants and bookstores, creating a human-scale pedestrian-friendly outdoor alternative to ugly and wasteful big-box shopping malls.

Urban and political issues aside, from a purely design point of view, I like what I’ve seen and read so far. I’ve always thought that Frank Gehry’s architectural vocabulary spins a fresh take on a profession that is so often mired in mediocrity. His style seems to be either loved or hated. There’s no middle ground. I even hesitate in calling it a style, since that implies fashion, and nothing could be farther from the truth when evaluating this particular architect’s designs. “Vocabulary” is a much better term in this case. However, once you’ve stood next to and inside one of his buildings and felt its presence and impact on its surroundings, you realize just how good “good” architecture can be. Believe me, I’ve heard all the arguments about the Hope, First and Second Street sides of WDCH, but you don’t want to get me started with a discussion of the Music Center, the new Our Lady of Angels cathedral or a multitude of other downtown buildings in which the same argument can be foisted.

If only the leaders of the Grand Avenue Project in Los Angeles would let Frank Gehry finish realizing his vision for Bunker Hill, instead of soliciting plans from shopping mall developers (I’m not kidding!), maybe the city could finally start to shed its image as the cultural and consumerist wasteland of the West.

July 7, 2005 | Link to this entry


Paul Viapiano is a guitarist working in film, television and live performance based in sunny Pasadena, California.

You can email me here.

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